by Naomi Rachel Ullian
Welcome to the Green Mountain Crossroads (GMC) blog. We're new to the blogosphere and this is our debut post; maybe you're new to us? That's awesome. Darn glad to meet you.
As an organization, GMC aims to advocate for and connect queer folks in rural areas, particularly in Vermont and New England. Not only do we want to build queer rural community, but we also want to build community across race, class, ability, and other experiences which sometimes cause us to feel marginalized, isolated, and disempowered.
This is why we are so proud to present this first post as a review of a recent event that happened at the Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, Vermont on February 15, 2015.
What was the event? White Folks, Let's Talk: An Anti-racism Skillshare. That's right. White people, sitting in a room together, in rural Vermont, talking about racism, learning how to hold ourselves and each other accountable. As a participant of the skillshare, a queer white person living in a rural area, and a supporter of GMC, I want to offer some of the ideas and skills that came out of my experience at this workshop, for folks to consider, use, and engage with.
This workshop was conceived in the fall of 2014, as the Black Lives Matter campaign continued to gather great steam. Friends from the San Francisco Bay Area called Bruin Christopher Runyan, a white queer healer living in central Vermont, to ask him: What are the white folks doing in rural New England to support Black Lives Matter?
With a background in popular education, Bruin offered his living room for antiracism skillshares, where a crowd packed in, hungry to connect and act. Local queer bookkeeper, organizer, and Root SJC collective member Alex Fischer connected with Bruin to bring a similar skillshare for white folks to talk about racism to southern Vermont.
One of the reasons we were all gathered at the Root was because the Black Lives Matter campaign had issued a Call to Action. Social media, in the last several years, has been a tool with which to pull back the veils obscuring white folks' ability to understand the everyday realities of racism, and many folks present at the workshop voiced the experience of following national events via this media outlets and feeling at a loss with how to respond constructively.
Based on the Call to Action, the skillshare's primary goals were to increase support for national anti-racism struggles, and more particularly, explore how white people can practice talking to other white people about race and oppression, build relationships that facilitate our ability to connect with people of different opinions rather than attempting to call folks out and win arguments.
Then we set group norms. I loved how the facilitators articulated these, so I'm excited to share them here, since, if you feel inspired to start having difficult conversations about race any time soon, these could be helpful.
Before we got into the hard conversations, we collectively articulated the questions we felt were pertinent to a group that was largely but not entirely white-identified and wildly varied in gender, class background, age, and ability.
One exercise the facilitators offered broke the participant into pairs. One member of the pair was to say something along the lines of, "I don't understand why folks are making such a big deal about the police. Our local police are good people with the community's well-being in mind." The other person's job was to engage in conversation that attempted break down ideas of institutional and interpersonal racism while remaining connected, compassionate, and effective.
A big task. Folks engaged in the exercises gamely and offered feedback on the experience, much of which included frustration and questions about how to move beyond didactic and distancing language. Folks also offered examples of what conversational tactics they felt worked, allowing both participants to feel heard and human.
In one exercise, my partner and I talk about how, as queer folks and as women, we sometimes felt impatience, particular challenges, and the need to modulate our language in ways to talk to people we perceived to be of greater social privilege, like straight and older cis-men. Another participant explained that, before he transitioned, the ways in which he would engage in difficult conversations as someone read female was very different from how he felt he should engage in those conversations now, as someone nearly always read as male and accorded male privilege.
Between exercises in which we practiced this sort of communicating, one participant observed, "A white person in a state of panic can create a very dangerous space for a person of color." Bruin then presented the "Growth Zone Model" (see below!) and, from his experience as a somatic practitioner, offered ways of grounding and centering for when conversations feel overwhelming due to the feelings -- anger, fear, guilt, shame -- that may come up.
During the course of the skillshare, I was forced to consider: How often do I have serious conversations about racism? When I think about that amount of anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-semitic comments I hear from my students and coworkers on a regular basis, I would say that my reactions are often avoidant, and I am so glad to have this skillshare offer me a swift kick in the rear. This is work I'd like to step up to, rather than shrink from, and I need skills and community to help me figure out how to be accountable.
The above skills and ideas are only a few that I, one person out of nearly 100, absorbed at that event. I wouldn't say that no one left without confusion about next steps or difficult feelings about something that was shared. But I definitely noticed folks making connections, being genuine and open, and showing hunger for reading groups, action groups, and other learning and movement work. I also observed white queer folks verbalizing the desire to understand and engage the power of queer experiences and communities to support anti-racist organizing.
So maybe its clear to a lot of folks, but I’m going to take a moment on this cyber-soapbox to clarify: Why is it important for queer folks, and especially white queer folks living in rural areas, to work towards an anti-racist society?
The work of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), which organizes queer rural Southerners across identities and experiences, helps me to articulate this need for queer rural white folks to engage: In order to overcome feelings of isolation and transform our realities, we recognize and become active around the interconnected systems of oppression, connecting our experiences as rural and queer to larger systems and global struggles. And if you need more to convince or inspire you, check out Rachel’s writing at Country Queers: Rural White Folks Need to Speak Out against Racism in our Communities.
Many folks said it: Let's keep this conversation and momentum going. If you're fired up by this article or the current events, stay tuned for local and regional opportunities to participate in anti-racism learning and organizing, such as the upcoming Southern Vermont Racial Justice Study Group in Brattleboro and the events through Mass Slavery Apology in Greenfield. Below are further link to resources about local and national work and supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign.
This work benefits all of us.
Naomi Rachel Ullian is a white queer femme Ashekenzi writer, herbalist, and performance artist originally from the Carolinas and currently making a home in southern Vermont. You can find out more about her writing at Prose for People and more about her herbal practice at Tiny Pony Apothecary.
Black Lives Matter Campaign: http://blacklivesmatter.com/
The Root Social Justice Center: http://www.therootsjc.org/
Mass Slave Apology: http://www.massslaveryapology.org/Events%20new.htm
Stuff Queer People Need to Know: http://stuffqueerpeopleneedtoknow.com/resources/people-of-color/
Collective Liberation Toolkit: http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/catalyzing%20liberation%20toolkit.pdf
Catalyst Project & the Anne Braden Program: http://collectiveliberation.org/
Southerners on New Ground: http://southernersonnewground.org/about/vision-mission-history/
Crunk Feminist Collective: http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/
Country Queers blog post "Rural White Folks Need to Speak Out against Racism in our Communities": http://countryqueers.com/2014/12/14/white-appalachians-need-to-speak-out-against-racism-in-our-communities/